Camp Quest is Not the ‘Atheists’ Answer to Bible School’ July 27, 2011

Camp Quest is Not the ‘Atheists’ Answer to Bible School’

Today’s Washington Post has a really terrific article about Camp Quest Chesapeake:

… Perhaps one should begin with what these campers believe in. They believe in critical and creative thinking. They believe in mutual respect and living ethically. They believe in arts and crafts. But here in a wooded national park south of Manassas, under shade trees and American flags and the mosquito haze of a swimming hole, they do not believe in God.

Camp Quest Chesapeake is a summer camp for atheists. Or the children of atheists…

“I don’t have any freethinker friends at home,” says Jake Monsky, thoughtfully. He’s 11, with blond hair damp from spending his free time at the lake. At some of his friends’ houses, the families pray before dinner. Jake says he bows his head because he doesn’t want to be rude. He likes these friends a lot, but sometimes, he thinks that if he told his friends that he isn’t religious, “then they might not be my friends anymore.”

Awesome article. Great publicity. And, dammit, someone find Jake a local freethinking friend!

Reporter Monica Hesse does a nice job of capturing what goes on at camp and how the attendees feel about it.

Now… about the headline:

Camp Quest is atheists’ answer to Bible school

I know Hesse isn’t responsible for it, but it’s completely misleading.

Camp Quest isn’t our version of Bible school. At a Bible school, the goal is to indoctrinate kids with Christian teachings. The goal is to teach children what to think.

At Camp Quest, the goal is to teach kids how to think critically for themselves. That’s an important distinction.

Some of them may be atheists already. Some of them may not know where they stand on religious issues. Some of them may even believe in a god. While I’m sure the latter group is small (if it’s there at all), no one at the camp is trying to “convert” kids to atheism. But the headline suggests otherwise.

So do the captions that go with the beautiful pictures:

Camp Quest: Summer playtime for atheists

Camp Quest, for atheist and agnostic children, has opened its first mid-Atlantic chapter…


Richard Dawkins‘ plan to raise my consciousness is working. If they called a little kid a “Muslim child,” we should all be offended because the kid probably doesn’t really understand Islam yet. Maybe s/he will in the future, but not yet. The same thinking applies here. Not all those children at camp are atheists or agnostics. Many are, but some haven’t made up their minds yet, and that’s fine. We don’t need to label them before they’ve decided. It’s far more accurate to call them the children of atheists or agnostics.

It’s hard to complain about any of this when the publicity is so good, but the reporter did a nice job to make all this clear. Too bad that wasn’t communicated to the people in charge of the rest of the package.

(Thanks to Ubi Dubium for the link!)

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  • Heidi

    I agree, Hemant. And I’d kind of prefer they tout it as a secular, scientific camp for learning critical thinking, than as an atheistic camp, since it’s not really about atheism.

  • I disliked how the article said the kids participated in activities like atheist swimming, atheist nature hikes and atheist stargazing.  Huh?  I didn’t realize there was a difference between atheist swimming and theistic swimming. I better make sure I’ve been doing the right one all these years.

  • Anonymous

    I think that was an attempt at sarcasm, which a lot of people seemed to have missed.

  •  the breast stroke is immoral in theistic swimming

  • UsuallyScarlett

    Thank you for bringing this up.  I read this article earlier today and loved the content, but the title is horrible. 

  • But…  but I thought Camp Quest was for non-stamp-collecting children!

  • But…  but I thought Camp Quest was for non-stamp-collecting children!

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    I’ll play devils advocate for the title and say that it does say it’s an “atheist ANSWER to Bible School”, not an atheist VERSION of Bible school. This could be taken to mean that our answer to the indoctrination is to teach critical thinking instead.

    But yea… I bet most people wil not see it this way.

  • Why couldn’t it be an “answer” to Bible camps? If their approach is indoctrination, our “answer” could very well be open discussion and free, critical thinking. Like you said, it’s not our version of Bible school, but our response. Just like how a protester’s response to violence could be peaceful protest.

  • Rieux

    Good one.

  • Here is my blog about my daughter’s experience at Camp Quest Chesapeake.

    It was such great experience for her!

  • Meredith

    I just wanted Camp Quest to be a camp where my children didn’t have to pray before they ate, say the pledge before starting their day and sing KumByYa (See, I don’t even know how to spell that) by the camp fire, like I had to do at camp. 

    Teaching critical thinking would be a complete bonus!

  • Rieux

    Some of the[ campers] may be atheists already. Some of them may not know where
    they stand on religious issues. Some of them may even believe in a god.
    While I’m sure the latter group is small (if it’s there at all)….

    When I was a counselor at the original Camp Quest in the Cincinnati area some years ago, we definitely did have campers (I think it was a small number, but then I didn’t conduct a poll) who believed in God. At least one or two of them had a believer for a parent, though I don’t think that was true for all of them.

    And it was fine. I trust Camp Quest kids to figure out the difference between reality and nonsense as they grow up.

    Actually, the biggest conflict within the cabin of third- and fourth-graders I ran stemmed from the fact that the camp facility that CQ was renting was run by a fundamentalist church. The kitchen staff were serious fundies, and one of them had a son named Noah who lived in the staff quarters and who was the same age as my campers. I imagine it was lonely for a ten-year-old to spend all summer with no one but his mother to socialize with; anyway, Noah loved hanging out with the guys in my cabin.

    Well, one day one of my campers announced that he had a new present from his parents: a deck of cards and a set of poker chips. I suggested that we set up a poker game (not for money, obviously) during the next activity period. Soon after we shuffled up and dealt, there was a knock on the cabin door: it was Noah. Seeing us playing a game, his eyes lit up. “Can I play?” he asked, with feeling.

    I, being stupid (and the product of a liberal Protestant upbringing), said “Sure, Noah, come on in!” After being dealt in, Noah proceeded to clean my guys out of most of their chips.

    The game ended when the bell sounded announcing lunchtime. The third- and fourth-graders hurried to the mess hall; Noah raced up to his mother in the dining room and announced, “Mom! Mom! We played poker, and I won!”


    Noah’s mom didn’t visibly explode, but she did grab the Camp Quest director and (AFAIK) tear him a new one. I thought I’d be in big trouble, but the only noticeable consequences of the incident I saw were that Noah was confined to the camp kitchen (and to a T-shirt that screamed “I Am Not Ashamed of the Gospel of JESUS”) for the rest of the camp session. I sure hope I didn’t get the kid physically beaten by his fundy mother.

    I suppose that Noah is now in his twenties; I wonder how he’s doing.

  • Anonymous

    That’s what we wanted, too… we’re lucky to live in Oregon and have Camp Namanu, run by Campfire, just down the road.  COMPLETELY secular, huge, fun.  This will be The Kid’s 5th year (he’s 11) and he can’t wait to go.  The 2nd year, my son told us a child asked if he could pray and he was told of course, just to himself as others might not believe the same way.  I thought that was handled very nicely and honestly.  (Bet that kid didn’t return.)  On top of that, at the bus dropoff each year, we always end up chatting with some like-minded family and a good number of cars have EvolvFish of some sort on them.

  • I’ve never understood the use of headline editors. I would be furious if someone added so misleading a title to an article of mine. It often seems that the position of headline editor requires a degree in Missing The Point.

  • Greg

    Pointless pedantic post:

    Actually, you could argue that these kids are atheists if they haven’t made their mind up. That’s if you go by the definition of ‘atheist’ that most atheists use, which is ‘without a belief in a theistic god’. If they haven’t made their mind up yet, then they can’t be theists, and so must be atheists.
    End of pointless pedantic post.


  • Anonymous

    From the Camp Quest official website:

    The idea to offer a summer camp program designed for children from atheist, agnostic, humanist, and other freethinking families originated partially in response to the Boy Scouts of America’s increasing enforcement of their policy requiring boys to profess a belief in God. It became clear that children from nontheistic families needed their own place to belong and enjoy the summer camp experience.

    It doesn’t explicitly say that the camp was an answer to Bible camps, but it seems fairly clear that it was indeed seeking to fill a need given the overly religious nature of many camp experiences. I don’t think it’s dishonest at all to express this as an “answer to Bible camps”, even if we would prefer other wordings. Like @OverlappingMagisteria said , that doesn’t make it an atheist version of summer camp.

  • I can’t wait til my little guy is old enough for Camp Quest, and I’m hoping that for birthdays in the future we can ask for contributions straight into a savings account for things like Camp Quest(and college of course).

  • I get where you’re coming from, but I think think there is a difference. When you say “atheist or agnostic kid,” you’re not talking about an actual belief, you’re talking about lack of an actual belief. I think all kids are born atheists or agnostics, and only later made religious. My little girl is two, and she sure doesn’t believe in a god! So in that sense, you could call EVERY kid an atheist or agnostic child, at least, until he or she chooses (or more likely is taught) to believe in a deity. 

  • Anonymous

    ah, I see that now Ubi.  I think you’re right.  I just noticed a few other slip ups in the article (aside from the headline which Hemant pointed out.) I guess I did miss that one as sarcasm. Strange, because usually my sarcasm meter is pretty well tuned, even on teh interwebs.

  • I think the title reaches a target audience, but still sucks and will mean that I have to continue telling prospective parents that we don’t teach kids that god doesn’t exist and we don’t teach kids to hate religion.

  • Kind of what I was thinking.

  • Now see, I was going to make the same points, and when I get here, there’s already two people beating me to it. How am I supposed to show off my big brain if everyone else has big brains too?

  • I guess I didn’t realize headline editors existed. I always assumed that the author had input on that, even if not direct control. 

  • Vanessa

    that’s what I was thinking too. Atheist is the default position.

  • Nope, headline editors are the last stop before printing and try to manage the word count with page space, which is why you will often see headlines that have keywords from the article yet seemingly no other connection.

  • That makes me incredibly sad for that boy…

  • JD

    If its not the atheist answer to Bible school, why was it the atheists’ answer to Bible school here?

  • Zac

    I will have to disagree with you there, Hemant. Yes, the goal and the way it is achieved is completely different, but if anything, that makes the comparison all the fairer. Camp Quest sees the existence of the indoctrination-focused Bible camps, and their response is a camp focused on critical, free thought.

  • Anonymous

    Bible School is the Christian answer to Camp Quest.

  • cipher

    What are you doing here, JD? Did Ed Brayton finally come to his senses and ban you – or are you simply looking for people who haven’t yet been exposed to your divinely inspired “arguments”?

  • cipher

    Of course, the comment thread beneath that article has the requisite Christian trolls insisting that free thought = indoctrination.

    Apparently, the fundie gene inactivates the irony gene – or bullies it into submission.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    I think the point is that they are supposed to be “pros” at coming up with catchy, attention-grabbing, titles, which the reporters might not be as skilled at.

  • dcardona

    Sadly, a lot of kids will miss out on a great experience if their theistic parents decide Camp Quest is the anti-Bible school. I’m a theist, myself, though I have no church affiliation (and I’m sure no church would accept me!), and I’d much rather my children attend Camp Quest.

  • It’s a dark thought, but after the Norway attacks I thought of the freethinker summer camps. There are so many lunatics, and we know the copycat phenomenon exists. Do counsellors have cell phones with them at all times? Do they have cell phone coverage at the camps? Does the staff talk to the local police? Paranoid, I’m sure, but sometimes the paranoid are right.

  • Libby

    When my mom picked me up from this very camp and told me about the attacks in Norway, that was my first thought. When she picked me up, my mom said “I’m glad your camp didn’t get shot up by a bunch of fundies, honey.”

  • Ex-Baptist Daughter

    I’m sorry, but I like the headline.  When I de-converted, I left behind not only a ridiculous ideology but also the very successful but wrong culture that is tied to that ideology.  Bible Camp was, like it or (NOT), a huge part of my summers growing up.  If I ever have kids, some of their peers will likely also go to bible camp.  I wouldn’t want my kids to miss out on all the good things I remember enjoying, yet the damage they would get from going to a bible camp is horrifying to think of even now.  Camp Quest could fill that cultural void.  The thing I like about the headline is that it acknowledges the cultural significance Bible Camp holds in the cultures we left.  I sometimes feel like the cultural aspect is neglected in atheist discussions.

    On second read, however, Alternative might be a better choice of words than Answer.

  • Clapyourhandssayblah

    The “rules” photo from the WP article showed a big stink load of sarcasm in requiring “worship” ha ha of the camp staff or some crap like that. 1000 words worth of picture. So, young kids are welcome there who might still be undecided, about… er, worshipping something like god? Yeah right. Lowest form of humor. Group-think sarcasm is not the way to introduce critical thinking to kids. And if being snarky is what these kids are encouraged to think of as “being themselves” in a nation where 98% of the population thinks god 100% exists… Well, good luck with those other 51 weeks.

    Find Jake some freethinking friends? The odds say that Jake isn’t going to stumble upon another “freethinking” friend in the general population until his friend count is at least 99. Unless of course he’s exclusive about who is worthy to be called friend, kinda like how all those idiots choose their own ingroup buddies.

    God doesnt exist! (true)

    Hooray, hooray, we’re so clever for a week! (meh)

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